Pye, Henry James (DNB00)

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PYE, HENRY JAMES (1745–1813), poetaster and poet laureate, was eldest son of Henry Pye (1710–1766) of Faringdon, Berkshire. His mother was Mary, daughter of David James, rector of Woughton, Buckinghamshire. She died on 13 May 1806, aged 88. The father, who was M.P. for Berkshire from 1746 till his death, was great-grandson of Sir Robert Pye [q. v.] Henry, born in London on 20 Feb. 1745, was educated at home until 1762, when he entered Magdalen College, Oxford, as a gentleman-commoner. He was created M.A. on 3 July 1766, and D.C.L. at the installation of Lord North as chancellor in 1772. On the death of his father, on 2 March 1766, Pye inherited the estates at Faringdon and debts to the amount of 50,000l. His resources long suffered through his efforts to pay off this large sum. His house at Faringdon, too, was burned down soon after his succession to it, and the expenses of rebuilding increased his embarrassments. He married at the age of twenty-one, and at first devoted himself to the pursuits of a country gentleman. He joined the Berkshire militia, and was an active county magistrate. In 1784 he was elected M.P. for Berkshire. Soon afterwards his financial difficulties compelled him to sell his ancestral estate, and he retired from parliament at the dissolution of 1790. In 1792 he was appointed a police magistrate for Westminster. One of his most useful publications was a ‘Summary of the Duties of a Justice of the Peace out of Sessions,’ 1808 (4th edit. 1827).

From an early age Pye cultivated literary tastes, and his main object in life was to obtain recognition as a poet. He read the classics and wrote English verse assiduously, but he was destitute alike of poetic feeling or power of expression. His earliest publication was an ‘Ode on the Birth of the Prince of Wales’ in the Oxford collection of 1762, and he has been doubtfully credited with ‘The Rosciad of Covent Garden,’ 4to, a poem published in London in the same year. In 1766 appeared ‘Beauty: a Poetical Essay,’ a didactic lucubration in heroic verse, which well exemplifies Pye's pedestrian temper. There followed ‘Elegies on Different Occasions,’ 1768; ‘The Triumph of Fashion: a Vision,’ 1771; ‘Farringdon Hill: a Poem in Two Books,’ 1774; ‘The Progress of Refinement,’ in three parts, 1783; ‘Shooting,’ 1784; and ‘Aeriphorion,’ 1784 (on balloons); all of which move along a uniformly dead level of dulness. Nevertheless Pye collected most of them in two octavo volumes, as ‘Poems on Various Subjects,’ 1787. Meanwhile, in 1775, he exhibited somewhat greater intelligence in a verse translation, with notes, of ‘Six Olympic Odes of Pindar, being those omitted by Mr. West.’ He pursued the same vein in a translation of the ‘Poetics of Aristotle’ in 1788, which he reissued, with a commentary, in 1792. His ‘Amusement: a Poetical Essay,’ appeared in 1790.

In 1790 Pye was appointed poet laureate, in succession to Thomas Warton, and he held the office for twenty-three years. He doubtless owed his good fortune to the support he had given the prime minister, Pitt, while he sat in the House of Commons. No selecselection could have more effectually deprived the post of reputable literary associations, and a satire, ‘Epistle to the Poet Laureate,’ 1790, gave voice to the scorn with which, in literary circles, the announcement of his appointment was received. Pye performed his new duties with the utmost regularity, and effected a change in the conditions of tenure of the office by accepting a fixed salary of 27l. in lieu of the ancient dole of a tierce of canary. Every year on the king's birthday he produced an ode breathing the most irreproachable patriotic sentiment, expressed in language of ludicrous tameness. His earliest effort was so crowded with allusions to vocal groves and feathered choirs that George Steevens, on reading it, broke out into the lines:

And when the pie was opened
    The birds began to sing;
And wasn't that a dainty dish
    To set before a king?

Occasionally Pye essayed more ambitious topics in his ‘War Elegies of Tyrtæus imitated’ (1795); ‘Naucratia, or Naval Dominion’ (1798), dedicated to King George; and ‘Carmen Seculare for the year 1800’ (1799). What has been described as his magnum opus, ‘Alfred,’ an epic poem in six books, appeared in 1801, and was dedicated to Addington. Pye was the intimate friend of Governer John Penn (1729–1795) [q. v.], and published in 1802 ‘Verses on several Subjects, written in the vicinity of Stoke Park in the Summer and Autumn of 1801.’ In 1810 appeared his ‘Translation of the Hymns and Epigrams of Homer.’

Pye also interested himself in the drama. On 19 May 1794 his three-act historical tragedy ‘The Siege of Meaux’ was acted at Covent Garden, and was repeated four times (Genest, vii. 165). The Ireland forgeries at first completely deceived him, and on 25 Feb. 1795 he signed, with others, a paper testifying his belief in their authenticity. But when he was requested to write a prologue for the production at Drury Lane of Ireland's play of ‘Vortigern’ (absurdly ascribed to Shakespeare), he expressed himself too cautiously to satisfy Ireland, who deemed it prudent to suppress Pye's effort. On 25 Jan. 1800 ‘Adelaide,’ a second tragedy by Pye, based on episodes in Lyttelton's ‘Henry II,’ was performed at Drury Lane, with Kemble as Prince Richard, and Mrs. Siddons as the heroine. The great actor and actress never appeared, wrote Genest (vii. 462), to less advantage. On 29 Oct. 1805 an inanimate comedy, ‘A Prior Claim,’ in which his son-in-law, Samuel James Arnold [q. v.], co-operated, was also produced at Drury Lane (Genest, vii. 700). In 1807 Pye published ‘Comments on the Commentators of Shakespeare, with Preliminary Observations on his Genius and Writings,’ which he dedicated to his friend Penn. ‘The Inquisitor,’ a tragedy in five acts, altered from the German (‘Diego und Leonor’) by Pye and James Petit Andrews, was published in 1798, but was never performed, because its production on the stage was anticipated by that of Holcroft's adaptation of the same German play under the same English title at the Haymarket on 25 June 1798 (ib. x. 209).

In May 1813 an edition of Pye's select writings in six volumes was announced, but happily nothing more was heard of it (Gent. Mag. 1813 pt. i. p. 440). He died at Pinner on 11 Aug. 1813. He was twice married. His first wife, Mary, daughter of Colonel William Hook, wrote a farce, ‘The Capricious Lady,’ which was acted at Drury Lane on 10 May 1771 for the benefit of Mr. Inchbald and Mrs. Morland. It was not printed. By her, who died in 1796, Pye had two daughters—Mary Elizabeth (d. 1834), wife of Captain Jones of the 35th regiment; and Matilda Catherine, who married in 1802 Samuel James Arnold, and died in 1851. Pye married, in November 1801, a second wife, Martha, daughter of W. Corbett, by whom he had a son, Henry John (1802–1884), and a daughter, Jane Anne, wife of Francis Willington of Tamworth, Staffordshire. The son succeeded in 1833, under the will of a distant cousin, to the estate of Clifton Hall, Staffordshire, where the family is still settled.

‘The poetical Pye,’ as Sir Walter Scott called him, was ‘eminently respectable in everything but his poetry;’ in that he was contemptible, and incurred deserved ridicule. For many years he was linked in a scornful catch-phrase, ‘Pye et parvus Pybus.’ The latter was another poetaster, Charles Small Pybus, long M.P. for Dover, who published, in pretentious shape, a poem called ‘The Sovereign,’ in 1800, and was castigated by Porson in the ‘Monthly Review’ for that year. Both Pye and Pybus figure in the epigram, attributed to Porson:

    Poetis nos lætamur tribus,
    Pye, Petro Pindar, Parvo Pybus.
    Si ulterius ire pergis,
    Adde his Sir James Bland Burges.

(Dyce, Porsoniana, p. 355.) Byron refers sarcastically to Pye in ‘The Vision of Judgment,’ stanza xcii.:

    The monarch, mute till then, exclaim'd ‘What! what!
    Pye come again? No more—no more of that!’

Mathias, in his ‘Pursuits of Literature,’ was no less inimical. Southey, who succeeded Pye as poet laureate, wrote, on 24 Dec. 1814, ‘I have been rhyming as doggedly and dully as if my name had been Henry James Pye’ (Corresp. chap. xix.)

Besides the works enumerated, Pye issued a respectable translation of Bürger's ‘Lenore’ (1795), and two works of fiction, ‘interspersed with anecdotes of well-known characters,’ respectively entitled ‘The Democrat’ (1795), 2 vols., and ‘The Aristocrat’ (1799), 2 vols. He revised Francis's ‘Odes of Horace’ in 1812, and a copy of Sir James Bland Burges's ‘Richard I,’ with manuscript notes and emendations by Pye, is in the British Museum.

[Lives of the Laureates, by W. S. Austin and John Ralph, 1853, pp. 332–45; Walter Hamilton's Poets Laureate, pp. 202, &c.; Chalmers's Dictionary; Gent. Mag. 1813, ii. 293–4; Burke's Landed Gentry.]

S. L.